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Will acquisitions stifle SOA innovation?

Startups often provide innovations in software technology, but as big SOA fish gobble up the small fry faster than you can say "food chain," is creativity dead in the water? Fear not, say industry analysts.

Three common lies in American business are: "Your check is in the mail." "Your money is safe with us." "Nothing will change after the acquisition."

The days of creating a company in Silicon Valley and three years later being a billion dollar company is not going to happen in SOA.
Dana Gardner
Principal AnalystInterarbor Solutions LLC

With a wave of acquisitions reducing the number of vendors of software for service-oriented architecture (SOA), how much is likely to change? Since SOA startups may end up right below polar bears on the endangered species list, are sources of innovation disappearing like arctic ice? The good news is analysts interviewed for this article don't think so. There may be some delays as innovative ideas have to emerge from larger corporate cultures, but mergers and acquisitions do not spell the end for SOA's evolution.

Looking at the big picture, there are plusses and minuses to small vendors entering the market with innovative technologies, argues Randy Heffner, vice president Forrester Research Inc.

"The broad perspective is that innovation is interesting and good," he said, "but with a proliferation of small companies doing innovation it works against the goal of having a coherent platform with broad and rich functionality."

One-off bits of software from small vendors, innovative as they may be, may hamper SOA adoption in Heffner's view.

"It forces leading shops to have to do a bunch of software infrastructure integration on their own," he said. "What that does is restrict the market for adoption of new technologies. Though they (small vendors) may be innovative and interesting and add something to the mix, their value is lessened by fact that they are a one-off. An enterprise wants to get a coherent SOA platform."

Consolidation through mergers and acquisition may be a plus if the large vendor integrates the acquired technology into their platform, thus saving developers from having to work on infrastructure integration before they can tackle application integration.

"Innovation is one major value point that has to be balanced against the need and requirements of building a coherent software infrastructure platform for the next generation of applications," Heffner said.

Tony Baer, principal at onStrategies LLC, also points out that among enterprise software customers the trend is toward limiting the number of software vendors in the mix. If an IT department has one major SOA vendor, they look at it as "having one throat to choke" when things go awry. So customers may actually like the end result of consolidation. While the image of a little underdog inventor creating a great new product may play well with the movies, in the real world it may still be true that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.

The reality of SOA may also be denting the popular image that startups can become overnight successes following in the footsteps of Apple and Microsoft, argues Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions LLC.

"The days of creating a company in Silicon Valley and three years later being a billion dollar company is not going to happen in SOA," he said. "It's not going to happen in software infrastructure. This is a long term slog that requires very significant amounts of capital and patience."

Investors in startups may need to beware of great expectations.

"This is a tough business," Gardner said. "It's not going to take off overnight. Being a vendor for SOA is daunting. Therefore, there's not going to be a quick exit for people who have invested in these (startup) companies. Being in the SOA market is not for the weak-kneed."

Because SOA does not lend itself to overnight success, Heffner offers his clients at Forrester a watchword: "evolution."

"I tell folks if you do an SOA your top level watchword should be evolution at all stages, phases, pieces, parts of SOA," he said. Rather than looking for some big idea to come along and revolutionize SOA, he sees platforms and tools, as well as standards and development approaches maturing.

Heffner sees evolutionary progress being made by standards bodies as an important step in the maturity of SOA.

"We've had a few specifications turn into standards recently," he said, "WS-Trust, WS-Secure Conversation, the WS-I Basic Secure Profile and WS-BPEL. These things are good and there's a lot of maturity yet to come in figuring out how to use these and integrate them into a coherent application platform."

Innovations in standards and best practices are being filled in by both the standards bodies and analyst firms, Heffner said.

Another place to look for SOA innovation is the open source community, said Gardner. He sees potential in the Eclipse Foundation's work on SOA tools as well as the work OASIS began in the past month to move two maturing SOA specifications, Service Component Architecture (SCA) and Service Data Objects (SDO) toward standards adoption.

Gardner also sees promise in the mix of mid-tier vendors and open source projects, which fueled this week's acquisition of LogicBlaze with its open source expertise by Iona Technologies Inc., which offers a mix of commercial and open source SOA software.

"Iona has it's own commercial Artix ESB, but is also a significant force behind CFX, which is an open source incubation project in Apache." Gardner said.

Heffner tends to be more cautious about developer adoption of individual open source projects because it presents the same types of integration problems developers run into with one-off technologies from startups.

"Open source is a factor, but not the game changing factor," he said. "It would be a periodically impacting factor in the mix."

For more information
Top five SOA insights from CIOs and CTOs

Forrester: Digital Business Architecture emerges from SOA

Heffner sees adoption into vendor supported platforms as the best role for open source innovations.

"Probably one of the best innovations one can talk about is Hibernate and its influence on EJB 3.0," he said. "That's the quintessential way that open source innovation can find its way into mainstream software infrastructure platforms."

In the end Heffner is optimistic that innovation will survive even if it has to jump through some bureaucratic hoops at large vendors, so in his view merger mania will not stifle SOA creativity in the long run.

"Although in the short run there could be less innovation," Heffner said. "I think there's still a lot of good innovation happening in the major platform vendors. It's just that it takes a little longer for them to work it into the platform."

Next week: What SOA innovations are being cooked up by Microsoft?

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